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Who Will Win? Can Top Writers Beat OpenAI for Copyright Infringement?

Look out, Chat GPT!

AI Robot sitting on bench with computer
Photo by Andrea De Santis via Unsplash

Can writers beat OpenAI in court?

What do Michael Connelly, John Grisham, David Baldacci, Jodi Picoult, Jonathan Franzen, George R.R. Martin, and Elin Hilderbrand have in common?

If you said they're all big-name, bestselling authors, you'd be right, but you'd be wrong in the bigger context. All of these top writers are part of a single lawsuit by the Author's Guild filed on September 19, 2023, against OpenAI, the developer of ChatGPT.

The complaint is that complete, copyrighted books are being dumped into OpenAI's database to train ChatGPT without the authors' knowledge, consent, or compensation. The lawsuit filed by The Author's Guild states that because of the use of these materials,

OpenAI’s chatbots can now produce 'derivative works' that can mimic and summarize the authors’ books, potentially harming the market for authors’ work."

Why does it matter?

If you're reading this, chances are you probably ARE a writer.

It's important to note that AI is not necessarily a bad thing. Every copywriter, marketer, and writer alive is probably now using some form of AI to help brainstorm, outline, or generate lists of ideas, much as we used human brainstorming, reading sources, and talking to others in the past. (Only on a larger scale and a speed of 125,000 times faster than our brain could do it!)

But there's a question of ethics here.

Consider that everything you write online can be used as training for AI. That any digital text that you or others have published - with or without bylines - can be used to feed the beast. Books and articles published anywhere online can be pulled into databases and given to AI to "digest." AI is gobbling up what you created without what Tony Stubblebine, the CEO of the publishing platform Medium, calls the 3 Cs: Consent, Compensation, or Credit.

The problem is that Open AI does not divulge what it puts into its databases, and it doesn't notify, compensate, or ask permission from the owners of the works, even when they're copyrighted.

Other people, not striving to be creative, original, or stewards of the craft, simply prompt AI to generate a book. AI then can use any of these works to spit out a book based on the ideas, hard work, and language mastery of others. The legal complaint says this:

“The success and profitability of OpenAI are predicated on mass copyright infringement without a word of permission from or a nickel of compensation to copyright owners.”

It's not just using these ideas that's problematic. It's profiting from them, too.

When people can generate entire books based on someone else's work, sell them, and make money from them, should it be considered theft?

Is AI stealing your work?

Mary Rosenbarger, the CEO of The Author's Guild, stated unequivocally, that YES. It is theft.

“It is imperative that we stop this theft in its tracks or we will destroy our incredible literary culture, which feeds many other creative industries in the U.S. Great books are generally written by those who spend their careers and, indeed, their lives, learning and perfecting their crafts. To preserve our literature, authors must have the ability to control if and how their works are used by generative AI. The various GPT models and other current generative AI machines can only generate material that is derivative of what came before it..."

Chat GPT can emulate an author's tone and style, spitting out AI-generated books using another author's talent, training, ideas, and all the years spent cultivating craftsmanship.

How do you feel about other people profiting from your unique work? They could simply prompt AI to generate a novel similar to yours, and within half an hour, they'd have a complete work that can be quickly packaged and put out as a self-published book.

Not just novels!

Anyone who understands artificial intelligence knows that it doesn't draw only from reliable sources and that the information it uses may or may not be accurate. This is a definite problem when writing nonfiction.

The use of AI-generated books is NOT just applied to novels. Cookbooks. How-tos. Travel guides. Apparently, lots of wannabe writers out there are compiling lots of books based on AI and what may be its dubious facts. The New York Mycological Society (for those who study fungi) has even issued a warning about AI-produced books on how to identify fungi:

@Amazon and other retail outlets have been inundated with AI foraging and identification books. Please only buy books of known authors and foragers; it can literally mean life or death.

Amazon's "helpful" (Hear the sarcasm?) approach

In the wake of the proliferation of self-published books that may be generated by AI, Amazon is putting into effect two controls.

1) Authors will be asked whether or not they've used AI in generating the book they're listing. (As if they would tell the truth!)

  1. Amazon gave no indication of how it would monitor the responses. (As if they'll hire an entire team to investigate the use of AI in any of their self-published listings.) Would Amazon pull the reported book if someone admitted that they used AI to generate it? (As if they'd eliminate a big percentage of the 1.7 million books that are self-published each year!) Is there a scale of how much AI can help write the work? (As if asking AI to generate a list of male character names popular in the 1800s is the same as asking it to generate an entire novel in the style of John Grisham!)

2) Authors can now only put on 3 books PER DAY!

That declaration hurts the soul of every human writer. None of us can produce a well-crafted, intricately plotted novel in a day, much less THREE of them! If hacks out there are compiling dozens of books and novels EVERY week and then selling them, they are making money off the backs of someone else. Even if their profits aren't very big per book, their earnings may be bigger than that of a self-published author who spent months or years meticulously crafting a work, (crying, sweating, and pacing in the process,) and who can only claim ONE book to her credit. (Voice of experience, here.)

Amazon has not decided yet how - or if - it will TELL the buyer whether the book was created using AI.

Evaluating the flip-side

Do writers draw from the works that went before them? Absolutely. Have I used ideas from Shakespeare? (Who hasn't?)

Have I benefitted from reading countless books and articles over my lifetime? (Haven't you?)

Have I used ideas that I've absorbed from other people's books without specifically giving them credit? (Without doubt.)

Do I use Google to find answers and information quickly without worrying about the fact that it, too, is "Artificial Intelligence?" (Don't you?)

What's the difference?

  • I'm not purposely imitating someone else's style, characters, and genre.

  • I'm not mass-producing works at the speed of light.

  • I'm not making any money from generating AI works. (Not making much from my own, either, but that's a different story!)

The value of the human touch

AI may be able to generate work quickly. It may be able to summarize, synthesize, and simulate works by other people. It may be able to steal and give profit to "imitator" writers.

But don't you wonder if all that conglomerated information will lead to a mush of mediocrity, where everything sounds alike? That authentic ideas and beautiful books won't be valued anymore because a machine is spitting them out en masse? Most of all, don't you worry that the brains and hearts of human authors will be devalued?

The unique and heartfelt work of human writers enables AI to do what it does.

We may have created a monster, but writers deserve, at the very least, to give their consent for AI to use their copyrighted books. "Real" writers deserve to get credit and compensation for their contributions to knowledge databases that have forever changed how the world processes information.

It remains to be seen if top writers can beat OpenAI in a legal battle.


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